It’s scary to think that we could one day screw up the Earth so badly that we have to leave it. But like many terrible ideas, it only takes the right hands to turn it into a ripping read. Hands like those of writer J.T. Nicholas (if his excellent 2020 sci-fi novel Re-Coil is any indication). Which brings us to Stolen Earth (paperback, Kindle), his new dystopian post-apocalyptic sci-fi space opera novel in which humanity can’t even vacation on Earth, let alone live there. In the following email interview, Nicholas discusses what inspired and influenced this story.
To begin, what is Stolen Earth about, and when and where is it set?
Stolen Earth is set roughly a century into our own future (give or take a few decades). The broadest setting is our own solar system, but most of the novel takes place on Earth itself, or “Old Earth” as the people of SolComm have come to call it. Basically, the post-apocalyptic remnants of an Earth that humanity fled.
The premise is that through our usual shenanigans — mostly off the charts consumerism, poor ecological management, and the consolidation of military might — humanity managed to give birth to a series of artificial intelligences that were originally created for defense, but ended up engaged in total war with one another on behalf of their parent polities. Conditions on the surface became so bad as these autonomous intelligences developed nano-weapons, bioengineered plagues, and killer drones that humanity — which had lost control of its creations — had no choice but to flee into space. They co-opted the existing infrastructure (a patchwork of stations, colonies, and mining facilities) and did a massive “space lift” operation to save as many as they could. They then devoted most of their scant resources to setting up and maintaining an “interdiction zone” around planet Earth. The only way to ensure the safety of humanity was to make sure that Earth, and the horrors that now controlled it, was completely sealed off: nothing got on planet, nothing got off.
Fast forward a bit, and the Sol Commonwealth still exists primarily to keep Earth interdicted. But the draconian measures they’ve enacted, coupled with the scarcity of some of the most precious resources (namely food, air, and water), have created a society dependent upon a rigid hierarchy that is indistinguishable from a caste system. Those who buck the system are banished to the Fringe, where they eke out a meager existence doing jobs of questionable legality and high lethality. That’s where the crew of the Arcus comes in. They’re a cast of misfits inspired by some of the sci-fi I loved growing up (and now).
The crew, in desperate need of those scarce resources I mentioned, agree to take a job that seems too good to be true: make a quick run through the IZ and gather some artifacts from Old Earth. If they can manage that, they’ll get enough credits to live like the politicians, at least for a few years. With no other choices, they agree to take the job. Of course, things go awry, and they discover that Old Earth isn’t quite what they’ve been led to believe. I don’t want to give too much away, but the crew, ultimately, must decide whether to reveal a truth that could tear apart the commonwealth that has been the only thing holding humanity together…and how to deal with the consequences either way…
Where did you get the original idea for Stolen Earth?
I can’t point to one big thing, really. I think it’s another expression of a fairly common idea in fiction going back to Mary Shelley and beyond. I’ve always liked the idea of humanity being the architects of our own demise, or at least thinking we are. And who doesn’t like a plucky crew of misfits crammed into one starship fighting for survival? Those two things were on my mind when I sat down to start writing and the rest just kind of…happened.
As you mentioned, one of the reasons why humanity abandoned Earth was because of the environment. How much of the story has to do with the environmental aspects? Is this a cli-fi sci-fi space opera story or just a sci-fi space opera one?
I wouldn’t call it cli-fi sci-fi (though I might change my mind on that just because it’s fun to say). The ecological destruction played a major role in the downfall of humanity and, to an extent, informed the society of SolComm, where resource management and…let’s call it ecological responsibility…is much more front and center and, in some cases, draconian. So, it certainly plays an important role in the story.
But the actual plot takes place after the climatological disasters; they shaped the world that the characters are thrust into, but they aren’t the ongoing villain (for lack of a better word). So, I think Stolen Earth fits more into the tradition of dystopian / post-apocalyptic sci fi with maybe a little social commentary here and there for good measure.
Stolen Earth is your fifth novel after Re-Coil and the three in your New Lyons Sequence [SINthetic, SINdicate, and SINdrome]. Are there any writers who had a big influence on Stolen Earth but not on your previous books?
That’s an interesting question. There are definitely authors that are influential for everything I write, but if we’re talking specifically for this… Well, not necessarily a particular author, but all things Firefly and Dark Matter. Also, J.S. Morin’s Galaxy Outlaws series was always a good look at a fun space romp. But I’ve been reading (and watching and playing) sci-fi stuff for better than three decades, so sometimes it’s hard to shake loose a particular influence.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? Besides Firefly and Dark Matter, which you just mentioned.
Star Wars Rebels. Mass Effect. Eclipse Phase. Cowboy Bebop. The Wing Commander series, particularly Wing Commander: Privateer. Freebooter. End of the day, I love sci fi, more than just sci-fi books. I play all kinds of sci-fi games (board, card, tabletop, video, you name it) and watch just about any sci-fi that comes out. One of these days, I’m going to sit down and try my hand at mecha. Then I can answer this question with a list of some of my favorite anime, too.
Now, in the previous interview that we did about Re-Coil, you said, “I really like the universe of Re-Coil and would love to write more in it.” But I get the sense that Stolen Earth is not set in that universe.
You are correct. And the answer to that lies in the vagaries of publishing as an industry. Right now (or rather, at that moment in time) it was easier to sell stand-alone sci-fi novel than it was an ongoing series, particularly one that wasn’t set up to be a trilogy (everyone’s favorite SF&F series format) from the word go. I still want to return to the world of Re-Coil, and have every intention of doing so, but one of the realities of trying to do this for a living is that you have to write the things publishers want to buy. I’m ecstatic that Titan wanted more of my work, and was more than happy to create a new, original title for them rather than continue Re-Coil.
So then is Stolen Earth part of a larger series?
While I definitely have sequels lined up in my head for Re-Coil, I think Stolen Earth is probably destined to be a stand-alone. That has a lot to do with the tenor of how the book ends, which I don’t want to spoil. But it ends in a way that creates the kind of societal change that might make follow-ups difficult. The tone of those books would have to be very different, and it might not feel like the same characters or type of story. Never say never, but for now, no plans to try and write more in that universe.
Earlier we talked about the movies, TV shows, and games that influenced Stolen Earth. But to flip the script, as kids probably don’t say anymore, do you think Stolen Earth could work as a movie, show, or game?
Absolutely. I’d love to see it adapted into any of those mediums (though, for the record, I think just about every author would!). But I think a movie or streaming series would work best. In a series, directors and screenwriters have to make fewer compromises on the time front and can explore concepts more fully.
I’m also an avid gamer, so I’d love to see it turned into a game, but that would almost have to be more a “set in the world of” kind of thing rather than following the plot of the story.
So if someone did want to make a Stolen Earth TV show, who would you want them to cast as the main characters?
This is always such a hard question. I watch a lot of movies, but am terrible at remembering the names of actors/actresses. But I’ll give it a shot…
For Gray, [SEAL Team‘s] David Boreanz. He can pull off the ex-military guy and I’ve liked him in just about everything. For Bishop, Anthony Mackie [Falcon And The Winter Soldier], who has a kind of goofy vibe that just fits Bishop. For Morales, [Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s] Stephanie Beatriz. She’s already got the badass undercover cop thing down pat. For Federov, Nathan Fillion [Firefly]. I mean, come on, it would be worth it to have Angel and Mal in the same show…. And then for Rajani, Navi Rawat. I loved her in Numb3rs and know she can pull off the smart scientist thing.
Finally, if someone enjoys Stolen Earth, what sci-fi space opera novel by someone else would you recommend they read next?
I’m going to throw back to an old one here… Margaret Weis’ Star Of The Guardians series [The Lost King, King’s Test, King’s Sacrifice, and Ghost Legion]. It’s a sort of inverted take on Star Wars in a lot of ways, but it’s got some of my favorite characters in space opera. Plus, there’s a smart-ass robot. Who doesn’t love a smart-ass robot?